Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sean Patrick Hill Commentary

The ekphrastic poem "Self-Portrait as George Gisze, Merchant" comes from the 1532 oil-on-wood portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. What was stunning about the portrait was simply the fact that the subject looks more or less like me. Or, exactly like me, depending on who you ask - and if you ask my wife, who first showed me the painting, she'll side with absolute likeness.

What also struck me was the Latin motto seen printed on the piece of paper hung on the wall, which I used as the epigraph, and is translated as "No pleasure without sorrow." This is a classic motif of the time, the worldly success presented with a reminder that it is ultimately temporary, fragile.

Several oddities are present, too; note the strange dip in the fabric to the lower right, almost an optical illusion, a kind of black hole into which all of his "tools of the trade" are slipping. Also, that glass vase really is "precariously placed," as if a single movement would send it to the floor, wrecked. And then, of course, there is the look of melancholy, almost. It is very subtle, but present.

All this was how I felt as I was attending my MA program at Portland State University (and this poem was part of my thesis). I felt like what I was doing was ultimately futile, that though I'd had some success it felt largely empty. That, and at 35 all I could think of was the debt I'd accumulated from tuition.

Craft-wise, I have to say I really like the line "There is wear along my collar." Why? Because it's just so simple, but to me it speaks the proverbial volumes. James Wright was quoted as saying -and I paraphrase - that the only way he could write was flatly. Yet, this is what I learned from Wright - the flat statement is far more poetic than your typical flighty line. Thus, I tried to make the poem (aside from a few embellishments) as flat-toned and sharp as I could.

The poem really is a "Self-Portrait" projected onto Gisze. I like the idea of that kind of substantial art, a long-lasting work that preserves a long-lasting human feeling of futility. Not that I necessarily feel that way now, but I can be sure it haunts me at times.

Sean Patrick Hill lives in Portland, Oregon, for now, and is a soon-to-be father. New poems will be appearing in New York Quarterly, Hayden's Ferry Review, Diode, and Copper Nickel.

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